in Roman culture and animist religion
The symbolism of the serpent in the Roman religious tradition has an archaic genesis and an original function.
In a passage from the Aeneid, while Aeneas is intent on making sacrifices in favor of his father Anchises, he suddenly sees a snake which, after drawing seven circles around the tomb, moves away, amazed at the appearance of Aeneas and remains "uncertain whether to think that be it a genius of the place or a messenger of the father” (Aen. 5, 95-96).
Servius Mario Onorato's commentary on the passage notes that in fact there is no place that does not have its own Genius (" nullus locus sine Genio"), and this is frequently represented by a snake (ad Aen. 95).
But what are Genes?
The Roman Geniuses were broadly speaking, intermediate creatures between Gods and men.
The Geniuses were substantially a legacy of the first religion, the animist one, and to understand their function one must understand that in the animist religion everything is permeated by a force, an energy and an intelligence, the "divine" is in everything, in the general and in particular (men, places or animals).
Everywhere there is an entity that protects and guards, therefore for the Romans, as for the ancient Italic populations, the Geniuses could be invoked, prayed or ingratiated with offerings anywhere, their cult was not recognized by the state, it was a pagan cult ( that is, of the pagus, of the village) but in any case very widespread, (in the imperial era the cult became public iconography).
The term Genius comes from the Latin verb “gignere”, which means “to generate” or “to create”. This word was used to indicate an entity that represented a general creative force but divided into multiple generative forms, to assimilate the concept I imagined a musical score where each note is functional and indispensable to the harmony of the melody.
Everywhere there was the presence of an entity that guarded and protected, therefore alongside the Genii of individuals, there are the geniuses of individual families, Genius familiaris, from which, in a more extended way, the Gens, or of communities, such as the Genius Populi Romans, there was also a Genius of the place, for example where Rome arose, Genius Urbis Romae.
The Genius was offered gifts of flowers, plants, incense, perfumes, wine and food.
Also in Greece there were divinities, or semi-divinities vaguely corresponding to the concept of Geni, and they were the Daimons, and in the Orphic religion (a religious movement which arose in Greece, presumably towards the sixth century BC, around the figure of Orpheus) , the Demon is the essence of the soul, imprisoned in the body for a committed crime and from which it tries to free itself, a concept very similar to certain Buddhist philosophies of expiatory reincarnation.
The term is perhaps linked to the verb daioma i, which means "to divide", "to distribute", with the meaning of the one who "distributes or assigns the destiny".
For Socrates instead, the Dàimon is the guiding spirit who often assists him in his decisions, but not only Greeks and Romans believed in this personal entity, the Etruscans for example contemplated a female and winged Genius, the Lasa, who accompanies the deceased from birth into the world of the dead.
Returning to the Roman tradition, the Genius could appear in different forms, human or animal, and the snake was often the Genius of the house, therefore a Genius Loci, which however should not be confused with the Lare which was and is the Genius of the place possessed by man or that man crosses (the Lares Compitali or the Lares Permarini), while the Genius loci is the Genius of the inhabited place.
The Genius loci was a divinity in all respects whose gender was unknown, therefore snakes were often portrayed in pairs with distinct physical traits, both to underline the uncertainty about the genus, and to request the protection of both : yes deus, yes goddess; in fact, when the Genius loci was prayed, it was necessary to specify "sive mass sive foemina" (whether it is male or female).
In the Roman tradition therefore, the snake was almost considered as a domestic animal, a benevolent anomalous and good luck charm.
But what was the positive meaning of the Serpent in Roman culture due to?
The serpent in many if not every ancient culture was associated in some great way with the Great Mother Goddess.
The cult of the Great Mother dates back to the Neolithic, perhaps even to the Paleolithic if we read in this sense the findings of the numerous Paleolithic statuettes of Venuses found throughout Europe.
The interweaving of myth and cosmology (a way of explaining the origin, history and evolution of the cosmos or universe based on religious mythology), that characterizes this figure concerns a very extended period which, at least in Europe, goes from about 35,000 BC to about 3,000 BC; however, since it is a principle of universal value, there is no civilization in human history that has not attributed a divine quality to motherhood.
The Great Mother is present in many regions with different names:
- Mediterranean: Cybele, Isis, Atargatis, Semele, Demeter, Bona Dea, Tellus, Ma-Bellona;
- in Mesopotamia Aruru, Nintu, Ninhursaga;
- among the Egyptians Hathor;
- among the Sumerians Inanna;
- for the Hittites Hepat;
- among the Semites Ishtar;
- among the Canaanites Anath;
- among the Indians Durga, Kali, Prithivi;
- among the Chinese Kwan-yi;
- among the Aztecs Coatlicue;
- among the Japanese Kannon;
In the Neolithic in intellectual terms, human life was very simple and symbolically as well as symbiotically linked to the earth and its natural cycle.
Let me explain, a cow, due to its abundant milk production, became a symbol of breastfeeding, a ferocious animal became an allegory of the warrior, the snake for some of its characteristics was associated with the Mother Goddess.
The snake sheds its skin periodically, it happens when the snake is growing and therefore gets rid of the moult that constrains it and limits its movement. The skin change was interpreted as an extraordinary phenomenon and led to the belief that the shedding was the direct consequence of the snake's rebirth after its own death. The serpent passes through death unharmed, leaving its old body on the ground; there is also another reading, the snake (males also moult), has the ability to make one body come out of another and it is possible only in the female gender through childbirth, the connection was soon made, thus cementing the union and reciprocity between the two figures for millennia.
These divinities were not simply figures linked to a generic "fertility", it is now established that they performed the function of every divine, spiritual and religious form in the broadest sense of the term. They embodied nature, they were creators and destroyers, they were mothers and virgins they were free and wild and represented the dual balance of everything
With the union with the reptile, the iconography becomes increasingly complex and totemic, the snake becomes the goddess herself and vice versa.
In ancient Rome bracelets (armille), were quite widespread, they were worn both on the arms and on the wrists as well as on the ankles (periscelides).
They are almost always in gold, few in silver and bronze.
The model mainly found in Pompeii and Herculaneum is that of a snake, generally with the body of the reptile wrapped in one or more coils, or with two heads facing each other, or with stones set on the head or in the eyes.
The snake in the jewels was attributable, not to the Genius Loci but to the Goddess Tellus (the one to whom we owe the practice of inhumation of corpses; the earth that welcomes us back like a womb) and/or to the cult of Isis and Serapis imported from Alexandria in Egypt.
The bracelets have changed style over the years, those wrapped in spirals and divergent snake heads are from the first century. ac those with a ribbon profile with a single head, are from the Augustan age and those with a round section (like the one in the photo) , from the 1st century. dc forwarded.
In antiquity, in all ages and in all parts of the world, the snake had a sacred and apotropaic meaning, a strong cult felt by all.
The divine with a matriarchal meaning even before Christianity begins to be undermined by a nascent patriarchy, the serpent that gave an important temporal power to the female is no longer a benevolent figure, the impious Apollo kills the sacred Python of Delphi, taking possession of the sanctuary of the goddess Gea, but it is with the advent of the Catholic Church that there is a real demonization of the cult of the Great Mother/Serpent when Satan takes the form of the deceiving serpent to subjugate the silly Eve and induce her to disobey God.
this is my creation freely inspired by the 1st century bracelet, ring in yellow gold and silver that will soon be in the shop
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